Chris Blattman

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Turning peasants into Frenchmen

That’s the title of one of my favorite books that development folks seldom read but should.

The basic thrust: in (nearly) living memory, French was a foreign language to more than half its citizens. The path to universal French, and with it nationhood, was beaten down by bureaucracy and education and not a little coercion. A couple world wars and industrialization helped too.

When we look at ethnic conflicts today, and judge that a heterogeneous or polarized population causes conflict, we forget that homogeneity is an outcome  of long and bloody struggle, with many losers, and not some lucky trait that rich countries have and poor countries don’t.

The book puts more emphasis on state-building than economic incentives. I’m not sure that’s right. that is why I was excited to see this paper by an LSE grad student, Konrad Burchardi. It’s a pretty technical paper, but the basic thing it does is show the co-evolution language homogeneity, industrialization, and growth. He looks at early France, but we might just as easily look ahead to a few dozen industrializing countries and expect to see the same thing.

One of the more original and possibly more important things I’ve seen from a grad student in some time. Worth a look.

3 Responses

  1. That sounds like a really interesting book but the word “peasant” is important, the French elite felt part of one country and speaking one language since much earlier.

    I hope your readers realize that France has been in advance of it’s neighbors in the language unification process, which explains how this forceful removal of regional variations of language movement came to be. Spain has simply never reached this level of unification (that’s important to notice if one were to believe it *must* happen for the development of the country, it has in fact still 5 officially recognized non mutually comprehensible languages, Castilian the standard Spanish, Basque, Catalan, Galician and Aranese). England ? You can’t pronounce a whole sentence without everybody identifying where and in which social stratus you’ve been educated.

    The years after 1870 are an important threshold, the start of universal public school and it’s “black hussars of the republic”, but in the 40 years before that, the immense popular success of the serialization of the works of Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Sue, and others, shows there was already a very wide body of people able to enjoy works written in standard French.
    So “French was a foreign language to more than half its citizens” actually just means most were unable to speak it cleanly and properly, but they were able to understand it.

  2. And you’ve just guaranteed that Burchardi will get more views and downloads than he would have on his own for several years. And his reputation is sure to increase as well.

    In other words, congrats on the McKenzie Ozler findings!

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